How Mahrez would fit in at Arsenal

Pokemon Go is all the rage. In case you have been beach camping for the last month and have no idea what this is all about, it’s a game that people play where they use their phones to track down virtual monsters in the real world and throw Pokeballs at them until they “catch them all.”

Kids love the game. Adults love that their kids are moving around, outside. Reporters love to report the juicy accidents caused by people walking around, looking at their phones. Social commentators love to report on the sad state of American children, that they need an augmented reality to get them off the couch. And people on Facebook and Twitter love posting about how much they hate the fact that people are (SHOCK) having fun in a collective fashion. With the normal critique being “but they aren’t really engaging in the world around them!” As if they almost can’t taste the irony of posting that on FACEBOOK.

What the game has exposed is how many people are playing games on their phones at any one time. Last week, no one noticed that the majority of the American population was playing games on their phones because most of them were playing those games on their couch or, more likely, their toilet. But now that these people are outside we can all see in real time how many people are playing games.

The tag line of the game is “Gotta catch them all” because the idea is to collect as many pocket monsters as you can. The more you catch, the more powerful you get. Sorta… like football.

There are some Pokemon more powerful than others and you can train the pocket monsters to evolve and become even more powerful. Sorta… like football.

Unlike football, to catch a Pokemon, you throw a ball at it. In football, you just throw money at it. And if you miss with the first wad of money, you just keep throwing money at it until it suffocates under a pile of money.

The good news for Arsenal supporters is that Arsenal have piles of money. The other good news for my fellow Gooners is that there is a wild Mahrez on the loose. Now, all we have to do is point Arsene Wenger in his direction and load him up with wads of money so he can capture Mahrez. The pump Mahrez full of candy and star dust and get him on the field wearing the #11 shirt.

Before Arsenal failed in the Vardy gambit, there were two players this summer who I felt would be game changers for Arsenal: Mkhitaryan and Mahrez. Both wide players. Both blessed with excellent vision. Both the best player on their respective teams last season. Both fill a crucial need for Arsenal in the wide forward position.

Mkhitaryan went to Man U, probably because he was tied of playing Champions League football and wanted the new challenge of having to play under Jose Mourinho, who just burns his players out after a year.

Mahrez, just yesterday, rejected an £80k a week offer from Leicester and like any rare Pokemon, there will be many players throwing their Pokeballs at him. Or money. Probably money.

I don’t need to remind you that Mahrez is a great player but I’m going to anyway.

He’s 25 years old and was the Premier League’s highest rated player last season based on the composite. He is almost entirely left footed (2 shots per game with his left, 0.2 per game with his right) but played as an inverted winger, starting 32 times on the right for Leicester.

He isn’t limited to right or left sided play and can switch sides at will, like Alexis Sanchez, who is a right-footed player who likes to start on the left. Positionally alone, he’s the perfect player for Arsenal.

He took 86 shots last season – 65 from open play and 6 from the penalty spot (the remainder from set pieces) – and scored 12 goals from open play and 4 penalties. Those 12 goals from open play make his tally more than any Arsenal player (Alexis scored 11, Giroud 10) and more goals than Walcott, Campbell, Welbeck, Iwobi, and Ox combined (11).

He also added 11 assists for Leicester, good enough for 5th best in the League and tied with Silva and Milner. Arsenal’s entire right side of Ramsey, Walcott, Welbeck, Iwobi, and Campbell combined for 12 assists.

His total number of key passes (shots created for teammates) was “only” 68. That’s good enough for 7th best in the League but reflects more of the counter attacking nature of his club’s play rather than any inherent quality. The inherent quality comes in when you see that he was third in the League in through ball key passes with 11. Fabregas had 13, and Özil 12.

I can’t overstate the through ball enough. It is the main stat I pick up on to see quality of a player’s vision. The most creative players always have the most through balls. Özil was first in overall through balls played, but in second place were Fabregas, Toure, Sanchez and Mahrez. Wenger teaches through ball passing, climbing the ladder, verticality, to his players and Mahrez fits right in to the Wenger style.

Mahrez was also 2nd in the League in successful dribbles per game with 3.5. That’s just one more than Sanchez with 3.4 and 4th in the League in getting fouled with 2.2 per game, tied with Alexis Sanchez.  People will say that his dribble numbers are inflated because of his team’s counter attacking set up and there is truth to that. I don’t have number of dribbles on counters available as a stat but I can tell you from watching him play that he’s not bad at dribbling in tight spaces. You can see that for yourself by watching any of his skills compilations videos. He did have to help break down packed in defenses at times and his close control and trickery were crucial.

I hope that you’re picking up on a theme: that Mahrez and Sanchez are very similar players. They are so similar that having both players on the pitch at the same time would make Arsenal almost unplayable from a defensive standpoint. As an opposition manager, you’d almost just look at the starting lineup of Sanchez, Özil, and Mahrez, and just write “good luck with that lot”.*

The one place where Arsenal would still need improvement, even if they were to get Mahrez, is in the forward position. I’m not hating on Giroud, he’s a decent enough hold up player, but with all of those creative players on the team, Arsenal would really shine if they had a predatory goal scorer.

No one knows who that will be, yet. But just like Pokemon Go, Wenger has to get out there and catch him. In fact, catch them all, Arsene.


*This is what Leicester City manager Micky Adams literally wrote on the team talk board before his 18th place Leicester played Arsenal in the final match of Arsenal’s unbeaten season (2003-04).


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